In this past week’s Economist, there was an article about using GPS to track the whereabouts of children. On the one hand such devices may make parents more comfortable in allowing their children the freedom to wander, on the other hand the prevalence of such technology might mean that tracking could become more commonplace for everyone.
This may not be a bad thing. Just as knowing the location of one’s child could at the very least help parents to worry less, and even potentially help to prevent kidnappings (and other crimes against children), so a greater degree of surveilance would make it easier for governments across the world to police their nations and thereby reduce crime. Studies have already been done showing that merely knowing that one is being watched reduces the likelihood that one will cheat on a test, even if one knows that they could get away with it.
And yet, while there is nothing particularly unsettling about using tracking devices to monitor children, people may feel more uneasy about using the same devices to monitor adults. What’s the difference? Aside from dystopian fears (that are perhaps irrational) about the government using surveillance technology to institute a totalitarian state in which people rigidly comply with the state’s commands (“big brother is watching you”), could it also be the case that to monitor an adult is in a fundamental sense to treat them as a child?
One is reminded of Bentham’s panopticon, a giant circular prison with an observation tower in the center, and privacy glass, so nobody can see inside or know when they are being watched. In such a system, one is not innocent until proven guilty. The presence of security cameras carries with it the presumption that without those cameras, the place would be less secure. What is lost when this privacy has been stripped away? One loses the ability to lie about one’s whereabouts. And one also loses the ability to choose not to lie. The watchers gain information about the watched, but without their consent. If the watchees knew that another set of eyes could see their every move, they might act differently, but is this not a subtle form of coercion? Maybe even… oppression? Imagine if every action you’ve ever been ashamed of was recorded and stored, never to be forgotten, and potentially accessible to the watchers on the other side of the panopticon. To the watchers, one becomes less like a person, more like an animal. But aren’t humans different from animals, such that they ought to be treated as having a higher status? Could our political institutions (in this case surveillance for security) cause us to view one another, and thereby treat one another less like people? Quite frankly, the knowledge that I’m being surveyed (when I am) no longer really bothers me. But it bothers me that it doesn’t bother me.